Phone-based VR is officially over

[The Verge reports on an important development in the history of presence-evoking technologies, the failure of smartphone-based virtual reality (the good news is that more compelling, convenient and cost-effective VR is supplanting the phone-based headsets). –Matthew]

Phone-based VR is officially over

By Adi Robertson
October 16, 2019

Mobile virtual reality headsets helped millions of people try out VR, but as of yesterday, they’re all but officially a thing of the past. Oculus CTO John Carmack offered a “eulogy” last month for the phone-powered Gear VR mobile headset, saying that the headset’s days were numbered. And Google just revealed that it’s discontinuing the similar Daydream View mobile headset, in addition to omitting Daydream support from the new Pixel 4 phone. The app will still work on older phones, but Google has now given up on a platform it once portrayed as an integral part of Android.

Daydream was announced in 2016, following up on Google’s simpler phone-powered Cardboard headset. At that point, Google projected having “hundreds of millions of users” on Daydream-compatible phones within a couple of years. In 2019, though, not a single current-generation phone supports it. There simply “hasn’t been the broad consumer or developer adoption we had hoped, and we’ve seen decreasing usage over time of the Daydream View headset,” a spokesperson told The Verge.

The reasons aren’t surprising. Cardboard had made simple VR accessible. The New York Times shipped a million headsets to its subscribers for free. But it was a super cheap, disposable product meant for enjoying short experiences. Making the leap to a consumer headset proved difficult. “We saw a lot of potential in smartphone VR — being able to use the smartphone you carry with you everywhere to power an immersive on-the-go experience. But over time we noticed some clear limitations constraining smartphone VR from being a viable long-term solution,” said the spokesperson.

Google says that people didn’t like losing access to their phones since Daydream effectively required launching into a separate app ecosystem. That wasn’t the only problem with phone-based VR. Carmack noted that immersive 3D apps drained precious battery, and the Gear VR, in particular, was annoying to set up. “Far and away I think the biggest issue was just the friction of getting into it,” said Carmack.

On paper, the Gear VR was hugely popular by headset standards. Samsung shipped at least 5 million units of the Oculus-powered device in its first year of sales, while high-end headsets like the Oculus Rift sold in the hundreds of thousands. But Carmack said it just couldn’t retain users because “if you have to pop your phone out of your phone case and dock it in a headset, you will use it twice.” Samsung hasn’t officially discontinued the Gear VR, and it didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Verge. But the headset seemingly isn’t available (at least in the US) through Samsung’s store or from retailers like Amazon and Best Buy as a first-party product.

Daydream was significantly less finicky than the Gear VR, but it had another big problem: phone makers didn’t support it. Google initially announced several partners, including Samsung, LG, and HTC. Most of them lagged in adding Daydream support, though — in part because many mobile displays didn’t meet Daydream’s standards.

Phone-based VR also couldn’t deliver the same intense physical experiences as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or PlayStation VR. As developers began learning what really worked in VR, the gap became increasingly obvious. Mobile headsets were great for playing virtual reality videos, but VR video was hard to make and monetize, and early cinematic VR companies like Jaunt and Within slowly switched their focus to augmented reality instead. Google acquired several well-known VR apps, including the beloved painting tool Tilt Brush, but most required high-end headsets.

Meanwhile, self-contained headsets got cheaper and more sophisticated, adding hand controllers and inside-out tracking. Oculus filled the Gear VR’s old spot with the Oculus Go mobile headset, and it’s now nudging users toward the Oculus Quest, a more expensive but also far more capable device. When you can pay $200 for the standalone Oculus Go or even $400 for the Quest, a $100 plastic shell doesn’t seem like such a good deal.

Google hasn’t really tried to catch the wave of standalone VR. It initially partnered with HTC and Lenovo on two self-contained Daydream headsets, but HTC backed out of the deal and Lenovo’s Mirage Solo was effectively a development kit. Before this year’s I/O conference, Google virtual and augmented reality head Clay Bavor said the team was in “deep R&D” for VR hardware, “building the Lego bricks that we’re going to need in order to snap together and make some really compelling experiences.” A Google spokesperson also emphasized the company’s work on AR features for mobile search and Maps.

Google spokesperson Michael Marconi declined to comment on Google’s plans for standalone Daydream headsets. “There are no changes for people who own a Lenovo Mirage Solo. They will continue to be able to use the headset and the apps they have downloaded on it, and download new apps from the Google Play Store,” he said. If Google does go back to VR, standalone headsets (or headsets wirelessly tethered to phones, if future technology enables this) still seem like its clearest bet.

Simple mobile headsets are literally just a box with lenses, and basic VR apps aren’t hard to make either. So mobile VR probably won’t disappear altogether. Marconi confirmed that Google is still offering first-party Cardboard headsets in its store as well as devices from third-party sellers like Homido and Mattel. But with Google and Samsung backing away from Daydream and the Gear VR, the dream of a full-fledged phone-based VR platform seems unequivocally over.


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